In 1900, a worn bronze machine was hauled from an ancient Greek shipwreck. With dozens of crumbling gears, the machine puzzled experts for more than a century. This documentary follows researchers who have come to suspect the machine, known as the Antikythera mechanism, is a miniature planetarium that tracked the Sun and the Moon and could predict eclipses. They have created working models, down to the pin-and-slot mechanism that gives a slight wobble to the lunar orbit, and have used a custom X-ray machine to probe layers of corroded clockwork. The Greeks “managed to cram nearly all their knowledge of astronomy into this small-geared device,” the mathematician Tony Freeth says on-screen. The maker of this “analog computer” — perhaps a thousand years ahead of its time — is still unknown, but some believe it might have been inspired by the work of Archimedes.
After a closer examination of the Antikythera Mechanism, a surviving marvel of ancient Greek technology, scientists have found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.
The new findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth in what is now Italy – possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with Archimedes.
Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C., invented a planetarium calculating motions of the Moon and the known planets and wrote a manuscript, now lost, on astronomical mechanisms. Some evidence had previously linked the complex device of gears and dials to the island of Rhodes and the astronomer Hipparchos, who made a study of irregularities in the lunar orbit.
The Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the first analog computer, was recovered more than a century ago in the wreckage of a ship that sank off the tiny island of Antikythera, north of Crete. Earlier research showed that the device was probably built between 140 and 100 B.C.
Only now, applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, or imaging by sections, have experts been able to decipher inscriptions and reconstruct functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. The latest research has revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. …